Alternative events bring new meaning to 'community theatre'


We’ve been hearing the words “alternative content” a lot in relation to today’s cinemas, but 2009 has been a year when alternative programming has become more and more commonplace—and creative.

The alternative possibilities for movie theatres were dramatically demonstrated at the beginning of the year, when the excitement over the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama entered the cinema realm. Thanks to a deal between Screenvision and cable news channel MSNBC, the ceremony was seen in 27 cinema locations representing 11 exhibitors, filling auditoriums during the off-hours of Tuesday morning.

In early July, another newsworthy event, the Los Angeles memorial service for the pop-music icon Michael Jackson, was simulcast to approximately 85 theatres in 31 states.
Suddenly, thanks to the new digital technology, cinemas have become a gathering place for communities to celebrate, mourn, and witness historic moments together. Movie theatres, known for the communal experience of an audience’s laughter, screams and cheers at a Hangover or Star Trek, are now places where people can also experience real life together too.

Another landmark event was Cinedigm’s live 3D transmission of the Jan. 8 BCS National Championship football game to 80 theatres nationwide, followed on Feb. 14 by the “NBA All-Star Saturday Night” in 3D. The first live streamings of sporting events in 3D were a smash, as audiences thrilled to a truly unprecedented cinema happening.

NCM Fathom has been enjoying great success with its live and prerecorded showings of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, bringing a different demographic back to the cinema. And Fathom has shown marvelous creativity with its various one-night-only events: Warren Buffett and other financial experts discussing the credit crisis before a national cinema audience; former Super Bowl champion coach Tony Dungy and star players offering football tips to high-school players; the reunion of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” gang for a live comedy commentary on the cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Screenvision, too, has been staging notable events in cinemas, including New York Mets baseball games, comedy-club performances, and operas from the fabled La Scala in Milan, Italy.

Abroad, Arts Alliance Media and XDC have also enabled many captivating programs, including operas from London’s Royal Opera House and performances of Phèdre starring Helen Mirren from London’s National Theatre.

In cutting-edge locations with digital projection technology, the cinema of the future is here now. Audiences are becoming accustomed to the idea that the multiplex can host an exciting and unusual experience apart from the draw of the latest movie blockbuster. Digital pioneers and creative programmers are bringing rich new meaning to the phrase “community theatre.”

You Get What You Pay For
With the advent of digital cinema, the emphasis became wholly centered on the image on the screen. Everyone talked about sharpness, brightness and resolution, but it seems like the entire topic of sound was relegated to the back burner. What a mistake! But the professionals today are beginning to realize that picture without optimum sound is like a bagel without cream cheese.

For the upcoming September issue of Film Journal International, we asked a group of distinguished audio experts for their observations, comments and “sound” advice. One thing they all seem to agree upon is that more attention must be paid to sound to complete the theatrical experience.

Asked about the most common problems they observe in audio performance in movie theatres, our experts cited a broad range of issues. The simple matter of sound levels and the lack of maintenance were cited as major problems. Under-specification of speakers for a given theatre size is a common problem, as well as poor alignment in the soundtrack reader, room equalization and crossovers usually caused by lack of maintenance or time to set up and calibrate.

All of our audio mavens agree that a properly tuned auditorium reproducing the soundtrack at the proper level is as important as a focused and bright image on the screen. They recommend hiring a qualified installer with proper calibration equipment and who has proper training. Buy only equipment that is designed for theatres. Don’t skimp and buy inferior products: “You get what you pay for.”

Our experts also discuss the most important parts of the sound chain and the new audio challenges of today’s digital-cinema presentations. When the subject turns to the most significant improvements in cinema sound of the past few years, here again their opinions are quite diverse: everything from digital-cinema sound to screen-array stage speaker systems to digital recording, production and mixing techniques at the studio level.

Good sound can be reproduced in the home, but the pleasures resulting from the acoustics of the large space of the theatre and the communal experience are what set it apart.
We thank our technical gurus for taking the time to share such important information with our readers: John F. Allen, High Performance Stereo; Chapin Cutler, Boston Light and Sound; John Durliat, Regal Entertainment; Louis Eales, Dolby Labs; Barry Ferrell, QSC Audio Products; Kirk Griffin, Harkins Theatres; and Mike Skrzat, Datasat Digital Entertainment.